Women saved the box-office during the last twelve months.
Gravity, Frozen and Katniss Everdeen led the way while Divergent, The Fault In Our Stars, Lucy & Maleficent came to the rescue of an otherwise disappointing summer, bringing more than $4 billion combined.
It doesn’t stop there: after a decade without prominent female action characters Sony is developing a female-led Ghostbusters sequel and a new film featuring the heroines of the Spider-Man universe. The Wonder Woman movie will finally happen in the near future, after twenty years of false starts.
The situation seems to be improving on the frontlines.
Behind the scenes? Not so much.
During a summer dominated by female characters, 38 movies of all genres have been released by major studios.
Out of those 38 films, how many counted a woman as director?
The various statistics available are disconcerting: 6% of studio movies directed by women. 10% of indie film directors. 15% of feature film scribes. 3% of women cinematographers. 16% of producers, editors, executive producers, cinematographers, directors in the top-grossing films.
Even territories we imagine having a better track record have nothing to be proud of: France only gets 23% of female film directors, Europe is at 18%.
While the latter is improving, a new study by the European Audiovisual Observatory reminds us that between 2003 and 2012, we fell to 16%.
Two annual TV reports recently released by the Director’s Guild of America and the San Diego University enlighten us on last season’s gains and falls. While directors, producers, editors and gained a few percents in 2013-2014, the situation is still dire and some decreases are unsettling.
14% of female TV directors. 26% of TV writers. 19% of creators. 1% of television cinematographers.
One. Darn. Percent.
Woefully embarrassing numbers, especially for an industry which sees itself as progressive.
“Where are the women?” we ask ourselves, as if we were in a Twilight Zone episode.
Here’s the shocking third act twist: they’ve been here all along.
There’s never been a lack of female directors, writers, cinematographers with great potential, only a lack of support and opportunities.
Women have been there since the beginning of cinema and thrived during the silent era as writers, directors, editors and producers.
During the first 30 years of cinema, half of the writers were women. When some of them worked with their romantic partners -usually directors or producers- they were having the upper hand in the creative relationship, not their less known husbands.
Everything felt apart with the apparition of the talking movies and the birth of the studios, only a fraction of women producers stayed in power past the mid-1920s.
If it has been a boy’s club for the most part since then, lots of women had great careers individually nonetheless.
There are many causes to such a lack of diversity and the under-representation of women in the film industry.
Part of the problem is that we don’t really know our own history.
What’s a stake is not only the history of women in the film industry, but the history of film as a whole, our common legacy.
Great progress has been done during the last few decades in that regard, but we’re still missing several entries on the contributions of women and other minorities. But even the prominent figures are not known enough.
We always knew Lumière, Méliès and Griffith, but until the last 30 years only a few, even in France or in the U.S where she made her career, remembered who Alice Guy-Blaché was.
Our memory is selective: we recall Lucille Ball but not her predecessor Gertrude Berg who was, at the height of her career, both the highest paid and the second most respected woman in America as well as a sitcom pioneer and the first showrunner.
If we forgot some who came before us, we regularly failed to properly celebrate those who were still active.
Gone too soon eight years ago, it feels like composer Shirley Walker never had the tremendous acclaim she deserved for her own trailblazing career and for influencing, mentoring new creators.
We know nearly everybody from the creative cast of Star Wars, but who remembers “George Lucas’ secret weapon” Marcia Griffin Lucas, who won the Best Editing Oscar for A New Hope, worked on the sequels and was, to quote Mark Hamill, “the warmth and heart” of the first Star Wars trilogy?
Jennifer Lee, Brenda Chapman and Jennifer Yuh recently offered us a slew of successful animated films, but only a few recall that the medium has been pioneered by Lotte Reiniger, who created the first feature-length animated film in 1926. Nor do we really know Disney’s first woman animator Retta Scott and her colleagues who worked at the company during the 40’s & 50’s.
Unconsciously or not, a disturbing number of influential women have been seemingly written out of history either due to creative differences, direct prejudice, ego, relationship fallouts, credit-grabbing, lack of documentation and loss of material or a simple failure to keep the memory alive.
Whoever we are, men or women, writers, directors, journalists, movie lovers, producers, editors or crew members, we owe a great deal to the people who built our industry; that includes pioneers of all kinds and especially our past female directors, writers, composers, producers and creatives, under-written for a long time.
The lack of knowledge about women who pioneered and contributed to our industry hurts everybody, as it reinforces the perception of male-dominated fields, that it’s always been that way and potentially always will be.
“You can’t be what you can’t see”: not knowing about potential role models can needlessly complicate things for budding creatives: when you’re starting out, about to dedicate a significant part of your life or thoughts to the craft, it can be discouraging to look back and failing to find someone that looks like you, or be overwhelmed by the unsettling statistics.
The film industry is difficult for everyone, we all work hard with no guarantee of making it as the goal of the entertainment business is to equally inspire and intimidate.
Facing adversity makes for a great story, but this is real life we’re talking about: most of the obstacles and mental barriers that prevented women to succeed in numbers or being properly recognized are unnecessary.
The current under-representation of women in leadership roles is not limited to the film industry, alas. It’s an issue in gaming, publishing, technology, business, science, politics.
This is not, however, an excuse for the slow or lack of general progress during the past 20 years, especially directing-wise.
Change doesn’t come fast, requiring repeated efforts and cooperation but interestingly enough, the industry reacts strongly to provocations and proved it could evolve when it needed to.
Energized by the threat of legal action and negotiations in the early 80’s, studios went from hiring 0.5% of female directors before 1985 to 16% in 1995.
Since then it stalled, then relapsed.
Could such groundbreaking advances happen again, were studios, productions companies, networks, producers, institutions and unions leading by example and working together on a joint operation?
Is it gonna happen in the near future?
Let’s hope so, as the creation of the Joint Diversity Action Committee in the American film industry would suggest. But it probably will encounter resistance, unless strongly encouraged or enforced: in such a highly competitive industry driven equally by fear of the unknown and excitement, the former usually prevails.
One thing is for sure: it’s been going on for far too long: the issue is known since the 60’s, when the Department of Justice noted that the discrimination in the film industry was in violation of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Is that why we love Don Draper so much, because in many ways, the Mad Men era never really ended? Unfortunately it’s not the drinking cocktails at ten o’clock part that we inherited, but the workplace imbalance and dated biases.
A dramatic change in hiring practices overnight would only solve half of the problem, however.
What the situation really calls for is a change of mindset, to get rid of misconceptions and stereotypes behind the scenes, but also on screen.
The under representation of women behind the scenes and the lack of female characters are two faces of the same problem: in fiction as in real life, we need heroines.
Misconceptions and stereotypes affect everybody when it comes to the stories that get written, greenlit and filmed.
As male & female storytellers, it’s always disheartening to hear that a project would have to be retooled under the assumption that an interesting, complex female lead doesn’t sell.
Lots of us have one or several significant leading -yet not without flaws- ladies in our daily lives. Lots of us even raised one. Some of us are those persons.
Where are those characters on screen? Why always the supporting role?
Who really cares about one more sidelined damsel in distress? Nobody, that’s who.
Now if that damsel in distress is smarter, braver, malevolent, imperfect, sneakier than she appears to be and rise to the call, that’s a character we want to watch, write, film or produce.
But those characters and their stories, if they don’t come from an existing property, are rarely getting made. So, far too often, as storytellers, readers and executives, we internalize, give in and avoid those narratives.
Will the current female-oriented film wave break the curse, or is it gonna be another Bridesmaids moment, whose impact was limited to TV?
There are reasons to be optimistic, as there seems to be a shift in the making… but reasons to be careful about it as nothing has really changed for a long time.
The lack of female characters and narratives is not an unfortunate trend due to the reliance of blockbusters on international markets, toys and products.
Even 30 years ago, the Alien saga was deemed a fluke despite its success, characters like Ripley not an example to follow. The creator of Rambo was booted off the third sequel because he stood up for a female co-star.
It’s like the industry tends to live in the past, not seeing the whole picture: the failures of Catwoman, Elektra and Tomb Raider 2 at the box-office during the mid-2000s became the kiss of death for female-fronted action movies… Ignoring for some reason the combined $1.5 billion worldwide returns of the Resident Evil, Kill Bill and Underworld sagas.
This last point is the oddest part: it doesn’t really make sense on a business level to fail to take into consideration 52% of moviegoers who proved they would vote with their wallets.
The current young adult wave is the perfect example: if the box-office reception of the Twilight & Hunger Games saga have been nothing short of massive. Yet it didn’t came from the usual major studios, who passed on such projects featuring female leads and primarily targeting a female audience: it started with an independent production company, Summit Entertainment. Lionsgate followed with The Hunger Games, then bought Summit. Now fighting as one, the two company born in the 90’s are ready to rumble with the established film studios, mostly because they took a chance and went against the false conventional wisdom that you can’t produce successful female-driven pictures.
They still have room to grow, however, as they still follow some of the studio’s antiquated ways: it they dominate the box office thanks to female talents on screen, it’s not true behind the scenes. As the young adult craze exploded after Catherine Hardwicke’s Twilight, big studio or not, no U.S. adaptation has hired a single female director ever since despite the heavy reliance of the genre on female audiences and novelists.
Such discrepancies are unsettling, especially when you consider that films directed by women usually have better roles for female characters… attracting a bigger female audience in return.
It’s not just about a female audience, but about universal appeal as well: movies passing the Bechdel Test, which indicates that two female characters have names and talk to each other about something other than a man, have been proved to make more money than the films that don’t.
If the current issues in terms of representation and hiring could be vastly improved, there is also hope, as an wave of new talents is upon us.
With the rise of digital filmmaking and new media, a lot has yet to be invented and there’s little that prevents young creative girls to kick ass and take (domain) names.
Despite having less female applicants, some notable prizes and contests have been recently dominated by women: 3 projects out of 5 were written by women among last year’s Nicholl Screenwriting Fellowship. Same goes for the French equivalent, the Prix Sopadin with more than 70% of female winners.
One way or another, now is the time for new pioneers.
We saw Nicole Perlman, the first credited female screenwriter at Marvel, sending the company into orbit by building the plans for Guardians of The Galaxy, which dominated the summer.
In less than three years Jennifer Lee went from being a writer hired for an eight-week gig on Wreck-It-Ralph to a co-writer during twelve months, followed by rewrites on Disney’s Frozen… She quickly became not only a co-writer, but a co-director of the $150M blockbuster.
$1.2 billion and almost as much Let It Go covers later, the first writer at a major animation house ever to become a director is one of the new queens of animation.
Overseas, Mattie Do recently became the first horror filmmaker ever in Laos and the first female feature film director of a nascent industry.
As exceptional and groundbreaking as they are, they are not isolated cases. There is a lot of uncanny girls like them out there, budding or experienced talents driven by sheer passion who need to be supported, mentored, hired and championed.
Regardless of how the situation evolves organically, making sure that it continues to improve will require sustained efforts from everybody, so we never have to take gender and diversity issues into account anymore and only consider the process and final product.
If despite the grim atmosphere some points seem to be improving lately, things don’t go fast enough.
According to the European Audiovisual Observatory, at the current optimistic rate it would take more than 50 years to reach an equal number of female and male directors in the old continent and 700 years to reach a parity of gender roles and representation according to the latest study of the Geena Davis Institute.
We can’t wait another 50 years, nor several centuries for the issue to solve itself. The time is now, not tomorrow.
Talent has no gender, but the real problem is invisible and insidious.
So sneaky that it can take many forms, so subtle that it can be propagated by anyone if we don’t pay attention, unaware of our own prejudices.
Talent is not the only factor in a set, in the room or on screen: unfortunately perception has to be taken into account.
Surprisingly, a lot of things are in our control, which means that issues can be avoided or fixed by simple changes.
Everything starts with the written page; it means, as storytellers, to create better characters diverse in appearance and personality, status and flaws.
It means writing more parts for underrepresented characters, the industry can surely do better than 30% of female speaking roles.
As film and TV are the dominant forms of entertainment, it can even have a impact on society and help solve the current issues, even foster professional vocations: just look at the number of young girls who felt encouraged to study science after discovering Jodie Foster’s character in Contact or Laura Dern in Jurassic Park.
For storytellers, executives and audiences alike, it means fighting for diversity of all kind in fiction and looking for new voices, new points of view.
When it comes to building a team and hiring, it means looking beyond our usual networks and being aware of the vast, often underestimated size of the talent pool of rising and experienced creatives.
Whenever possible it means reaching out, supporting movies and filmmakers, mentoring budding talents, making sure that the new generation doesn’t have to live through the same imbalance that prevailed for so long.
For companies gravitating around the industry, it means featuring more women & diversity in active roles on advertising campaigns. Not for the sake of political correctness but from a business standpoint, as those people are already using the hardware and services and more customers can be won over. Small details like this can go a long way: it can appeal to new consumers, help develop new markets and more importantly it can have an impact, ad by ad, on the industry by changing perceptions, empowering customers and inspiring young talents.
Most of all, it means standing up and taking responsibility to ensure that the industry gets on with the times.
Whatever our status, as creatives or film lovers, we gave a good chunk of our life, efforts and passion to the craft. We fell for it because it inspired us, despite the roughness of the business. Do we really want our lifelong passion to take the form of an industry that doesn’t learn from its past and fails to represent the world we live in, or a community that finds new solutions for old problems, includes the majority of the audience, moves forward and benefits from it culturally, creatively and financially?
Decades of slow improvements clearly indicate that it’s time to change the script.
This is not only a problem for women or diversity, this is also male problem.
Use our comprehensive lists of active Women’s Film Festivals, Workshops and Grants for Female Filmmakers
Read more on Nicole Perlman on the News Round-up #3: Blood & Stars. Find Jennifer Lee & Sony’s Spider-Woman project on News Round-up #2 – Time & Superpowers & Paul Feig’s Ghostbusters on News Round-up #5 – Ghosts & Mentors
Follow organizations, festivals and initiatives focusing on diversity in the film industry on the Diversity Directory
Find upcoming films written or directed by women on the Hollycal – The calendar of releases & events and our Trailers & Releases articles
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